Ask Dr. Larry Agenbroad what his most exciting discovery as a paleontologist has been, and his response is: “Too many to select just one.”

He cites, among the top three, discoveries with which you might already be very familiar:

• the most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton found to-date,

• an 11,000 year-old bison kill site,

• and the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia.

These discoveries—like his work—are from all over the world.

Dr. Larry Agenbroad

(Image of Dr. Agenbroad and fossil replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad. If you, like me, thought this was a saber-toothed cat fossil, guess again! See the end of the post for more info*.)

Pygmy mammoths are the smallest of the known species, and their remains have been found on Wrangel Island (off of Russia) and on the Channel Islands (off of California). It is thought that their size evolved from their isolated existence on islands, an environment that would not be able to support multiple Columbian or woolly mammoths.

Dr. Agenbroad led the team that excavated the most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton yet found. A cast of the fossil can be seen at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, and a replica of this fossil in-situ is in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The SBMNH’s website states that Dr. Agenbroad has found 66 more fossil sites on the islands.

Nebraska is home to the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site. Named after Bill Hudson and Albert Meng, who found it by accident in 1954, it eventually produced almost 600 separate bison fossils. These fossils represent a species of bison that does not exist today. Dr. Agenbroad began excavation here in the 1970’s. Different theories exist regarding why so many 11,000 year-old remains of the same species are in one place.

You can see Dr. Agenbroad in the Discovery Channel documentary, “Raising the Mammoth”. It details the discovery and research of the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia. Dr. Agenbroad is among other well-known paleontologists who worked together on this remarkable find: an enormous mammoth encased in ice. That documentary also gives you a peak into the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, where he is the Chief Scientist and Site Director.

Recently accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Mammoth Site houses the largest collection of mammoth fossils in the United States. It is open to the public year-round.

Their website lists that they recently found the 61st mammoth fossil this summer; 58 of which are Columbian mammoths, 3 are woolly mammoths.

Woolly mammoths may dominate mainstream imagination, but the species that lived throughout the U.S. was actually the largest (and possibly the least hairy) representative of that species: the Columbian mammoth.

The Mammoth Site, a growing museum on 8.5 acres of land, is built over the initial excavation area. And that area was originally intended as part of a housing development. Construction came to a halt in 1974 when mammoth fossils were found.

Joe Muller, COO/Business Manager of the museum, describes the initial structure built in 1975 as a modest plywood construction. An addition was made to that structure in 1976 and 1978.

“That [addition] remained over part of the site so people could come in and look a little bit at some of the fossils,” he said in a phone interview.

“[Researchers] would excavate outside (there was a self-imposed hiatus from excavating for 1980-1982 and 1984-1985 until a building could be constructed over the site) until in 1986, the building was built over the sinkhole area. Then in 1990 we enclosed a lobby area with a gift shop.”

Today, there is an additional 4000 square feet of enclosed exhibit space, plus 8,000 square feet for laboratory, bone storage, research library, offices, bathrooms and storage (which opened in May 2001).

And–to give readers an additional sense of the size of the museum space–there is a crane.

“We have a crane in the sinkhole area,” he continued, “so that we can remove the fossils, take them to the ‘mammoth elevator’, and then take them to the basement to the laboratory work on.”

The sinkhole is the reason Hot Springs has such a wealth of fossils. As described both on the museum’s website and in the acclaimed book by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age), the area known as “the sinkhole” was created about 26,000 years ago. It was a 65-foot-deep pond framed by steep banks, with an even deeper section through which flowed warm water. Warm water and vegetation are believed to be the temptations that caused mammoths to venture into the pond. Getting out of that pond—or rather, the inability thereof–is believed to have been the cause of their death.

The many fossils that remain today—mostly young male mammoths—were eventually covered and preserved by mud and sediment over thousands of years. A number of these fossils remain in-situ and available to the public at the Mammoth Site. Excavation within the site continues each year, and it is an opportunity for which one can apply—paleontological background or not. Muller advises that one can apply “to come and excavate for five days with Roads Scholars (May & October), then EarthWatch volunteers come for two two-week sessions; basically the month of July.” Amongst the Ice Age fossils found are camel, llama, prairie dog, a giant short-faced bear, wolf, and numerous invertebrates.

The book Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age lists the surprising fact that mammoth hyoid bones and bile stones have been recovered here.

Dr. Agenbroad explained that “a hyoid bone is a set (5) of bones that support the tongue. Often only one of the set is found.” When asked how something so seemingly small such as a bile stone could be found and identified, he said that is “a non-osteological specimen”, and that they use “chemical analyses to identify them, comparing and contrasting them to modern elephant bile stones.”

Dr. Adrian Lister, one of the authors of the aforementioned book, is listed as one of the former “Visiting Scholars” to the Mammoth Site. Designed and implemented by Dr. Agenbroad, the Visiting Scholar program invites researchers to study at the site.

“I wanted to ‘cross-pollinate’ ideas, methods, and theories with international experts,” wrote Dr. Agenbroad in an email. In response to whether other sites engage in similar activities, he continued, “It is rare for other sites to invite and support a visiting scholar (usually due to budget restrictions).”

The impressive list of “Visiting Scholars” also includes, among others, Adriana Torres of Mexico; Dr. Laura Luzi of Italy; Dr. Daniel Fisher (now of the University of Michigan, one of the many researchers who worked on “Lyuba”, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date, and mammoth-tusk expert); Dick Mol of the Netherlands;  Dr. Evgeny Maschenko, Dr. Alexei Tikhonov and Dr. Gennady Baryshnikov of Russia; Dr. Ralf Kahlke of Germany; and Dr. Jim Burns of Canada.

In terms of tourists, approximately 100,000 people visit the Mammoth Site each year from all over the world.

“Our town is about 3700 people,” Muller said, referring to Hot Springs, SD, “so when we bring in 100,000 visitors a year, it’s a big economic impact for the city.”

From the United States, visitors from Minnesota and Colorado top the list (visitors from South Dakota itself come in third!), but people from as far as South Africa, Korea, and Australia—among so many other foreign countries—also travel to the site.

The Mammoth Site received accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in October of 2013.

“We are in the top 6% of museums in the United States, as only about 5.8% of the estimated 17,500 museums are accredited.”

The accreditation process is apparently a lengthy process, and not every museum is successfully accredited upon their initial application. Policies regarding everything from the artifacts and exhibits (its “collections”) to its financial policies are reviewed and evaluated. The Mammoth Site, Muller stated with well-deserved enthusiasm, “made it the first time!”

“We have a $2.2 million major gift campaign going on now,” Muller continued. “$1.6 million is for a ‘Learning Center’, which includes a couple of theatres and a kind of a gathering area. We are planning a bid letting in August and construction to start in October, with a May 2015 opening date.”

The website offers a “buy-a-brick” program as part of that campaign. It is clear that the growth of this museum is–in no small part–a result of the dedication of everyone who works at and is involved with the Mammoth Site. Muller attributes that to a close-knit community within the museum.

“We’re pretty much like a family, and that’s what the reviewers with American Alliance of Museums said that they were really impressed with: how the staff gets along and works together.”


*Dr. Agenbroad is pictured with a short-faced bear replica.

The Mammoth Site:

You can apply to excavate at the Mammoth Site! OR

Buy-a-brick to help the Mammoth Site campaign!

Pygmy Mammoth, Channel Islands National Park:

Pygmy Mammoth, Santa Barbara Natural Museum of History:

Latin names of mammoth species mentioned:

Pygmy mammoths = Mammuthus exilis

Woolly mammoths = Mammuthus primigenius

Columbian mammoths = Mammuthus columbi

(Earlier post with Dr. Dan Fisher:

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Larry Agenbroad and Joe Muller for their time, their generous insight, and their work at the Mammoth Site! An equally large thank you to Presston Gabel, Diana Turner and for all who are involved with the work in that museum!